Why Jamison Farm Is a “A Napa Valley for Sheep”
How a former coal miner and his wife use the resources atop rolling Westmoreland County hills to produce the best lamb in the United States.
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John and Sukey Jamison raise lamb on 212 acres of what John calls the “Napa Valley for sheep.”
John Jamison almost always has grass on his mind.
“At one time I was even on the board of an organization called Project Grass. That sounds like a 1960’s hippie thing,” he says. “It isn’t.”
Good grass is the reason the house at Jamison Farm — nestled in a nook within 212 acres of rolling hills in Unity, Westmoreland County — is decorated with signed photographs, menus and letters from the deities of the American culinary world: Julia Child, Alice Waters, Daniel Boulud, Dan Barber, Wolfgang Puck, Jean-Louis Palladin. All of them, at one point, declared Jamison lamb the best lamb in the United States.
“He’s a velvet hammer revolutionary,” says Barber of Jamison. “He changed the way a lot of people thought about raising lamb.”
Barber is widely considered to be the preeminent thought-leader among chefs who value ingredients for both their extraordinary flavor and their ecological significance. He could fill a wheelbarrow with James Beard and other awards he’s won for himself and his restaurants, Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
Like most of the prime lamb regions in the world, it’s hilly and wet at Jamison Farm. “It’s cause and effect ... Here, all you can do is raise sheep. Guys around here will try to grow corn and other stuff, but it’s very difficult and dangerous. But we can put sheep on here and make money,” Jamison says.
Resources in this part of western Pennsylvania have always been extracted the hard way. Coal was deep mined and then stripped from the hills by the trainful. Although the Marcellus Shale natural gas boom — and the parade of construction, heavy machinery and water tanks that come with it — is more prominent in other parts of the region such as Greene County (home of Pittsburgh’s other legendary lamb producer, Elysian Fields), there are five “shallow” wells on the Jamison property.
That helps them financially — they don’t have to pay for the gas that heats the house, among other things — but Jamison says it doesn’t affect the flavor of the lamb. He says it’s what’s on top of the ground, not what’s 2,000 feet below, that matters. This means that, in spring, the lambs feast on early season garlic-chives and pick up subtle allium notes. Going into the summer, the fields are blossoming with wildflowers and wild anise, which promote exquisite herbaceous undertones. Fall brings nutrient-dense fescue that helps the lambs fatten up for winter, and they also eat Queen Anne’s lace, a relative of the carrot, which sweetens the meat.
Sukey Jamison, 70, knows how to showcase her lamb as well as anyone. Her signature plate of lamb-three-ways demonstrates how she has become a master at drawing out the best in each part of the meat she and her husband have raised for more than four decades: shank, braised for hours in tomato stock, its meat, fat and connective tissue melding into heavenly ragu with the braising vegetables; sirloin, grilled to reveal the lamb’s grassy undertones, which on this occasion reflect springtime chive; and a rack of lamb, the jewel cut, a sweet, tender and succulent showcase of the hills that the lamb once walked. Her favorite cut is tenderloin, simply seasoned with salt, pepper and olive oil, seared for seconds on each side in a red-hot, cast-iron skillet. “That’s nature’s fast food right there,” she says.
Seared lamb tenderloin is just about the last thing most people in the United States would associate with fast food.
Throughout much of the world, sheep are prized as a mainstay meat. In the United States, however, its consumption is small potatoes compared to the mountains of chicken, beef and pork consumed. With the farm-to-table movement at the forefront of food talk, with grass-fed beef becoming a buzzword and with a good number of diners becoming more open-minded, one might think we’d eat more lamb. We’re actually eating less than ever before. According to the North American Meat Institute, Americans ate 0.7 pounds of lamb per person in 2014 as compared to 1.1 pounds in 2008 (as per USDA) and 4.5 in the 1960s. By comparison, the average American diner ate 84.6 pounds of chicken and 54.2 pounds of beef in 2014. According to the trade group American Lamb, 33 percent of people in the United States have never even tried lamb.
“Most of the meat we eat in this country isn’t called the same name as the animal, except for lamb. You say lamb, and you’re seeing this white lamb over here. You’re going to eat a pig? No. You’re going to eat pork. Are you going to eat a cow? No. You’re going to eat beef. Chickens? Chickens aren’t adorable,” says Sukey.
It used to be that mutton — lamb slaughtered after the animal is a year old — was what was on the menu. Lamb traditionally is a dual-product animal; first we use it for its wool and then later for its meat. But mutton tends to have a strong flavor that isn’t appealing to conventional American palates. Although the vast majority of sheep sold for the consumption in the United States now is lamb younger than a year old, not mutton, its reputation as a gamey, strong meat remains.
Conversely, much of the commercial lamb produced in places such as Colorado is grain-fed, rendering it less distinct in flavor, yet more expensive than, beef. “In grain-based Colorado lamb, they want a big fat cover with a dumbed-down flavor. Lamb on grain is not that interesting at all,” says Barber.
Barber says there is less compelling need to raise lamb in the United States, too. “Most cultures adopted lamb and sheep because of grazing. It’s an efficient way to use the landscape. In America, we weren’t forced into that need. We had so much land and resources ... that allowed us to focus on other meats,” says Barber.
Yet it’s precisely because of geography — the hills, elevation, rainfall and, most importantly, the grasses of western Pennsylvania — that Jamison lamb is what it is.
“It’s special because of where you are. You can taste the difference in a grass-based system. This is what lamb is supposed to taste like,” says Barber.